There may be life on Venus after all.
On Monday, scientists revealed that they have detected a gas called phosphine in the harshly acidic clouds of Venus. The presence of phosphine is an indicator that microbes may inhabit Earth’s inhospitable neighbor, Venus.
The researchers did not discover actual life forms, but noted that on Earth phosphine is produced by bacteria thriving in oxygen-starved environments. The international scientific team first spotted the phosphine using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii and confirmed it using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile.
While this is a groundbreaking discovery, Carl Sagan predicted it first. In fact, he predicted it over two years before humans even landed on the moon.
In March, 1961, Sagan in a paper published in Nature, called ‘The Planet Venus,’ summarized how “recent observations shed light on the atmosphere, surface and possible biology of the nearest planet.”
“The planet Venus is enshrouded by clouds which prevent telescopic examination of its surface. In the absence of direct observations, reasons have been adduced for proposing a variety of differing and mutually iaconsistent surface conditions,” he explains in the paper.
On whether life would be possible on the planet, Sagan explains that, “No known terrestrial microorganisms can survive more than a few minutes the exposure to 600 K; proteins are denatured, deoxyribonucleic acid is depolymerized, and even small organic molecules are dissociated in short periods of time. Temperatures at the poles of Venus are probably not more
than 100K cooler than the mean planetary temperature, and it appears quite certain that terrestrial organisms deposited on the surface of the planet would quickly be killed. Consequently
there seems little danger of biological contamination of the surface of Venus.”
However, he adds that “conditions are much more favorable at higher altitudes, especially just beneath the cloud layer, and there is the distinct possibility of biological contamination of the upper Cytherean atmosphere. At such high temperatures, and in the absence of liquid water, it appears very unlikely that there are indigenous surface organisms at the present time. If life based upon carbon-hydrogen-oxygennitrogen chemistry ever developed in the early history of Venus, it must subsequently have evolved to subsurface or atrnospheric ecological niches.”
In summary, he meant that “If small amounts of minerals are stirred up to the clouds from the surface, it is by no means difficult to imagine an indigenous biology in the clouds of Venus.”
“Sagan’s work on Venus was formative, though few today remember his impact,” Darby Dyar, the chair of NASA’s Venus Exploration Advisory Group told Mashable. “His idea was prescient, and still makes sense today: between the hellish surface conditions on present-day Venus and the near-vacuum of outer space must be a temperate region where life could live on.”
Which is exactly where the current ‘traces of life’ have been found: in the atmosphere.
Phosphine was seen at 20 parts-per-billion in the Venusian atmosphere, a trace concentration. Greaves said the researchers examined potential non-biological sources such as volcanism, meteorites, lightning and various types of chemical reactions, but none appeared viable. The research continues to either confirm the presence of life or find an alternative explanation.
Venus is Earth’s closest planetary neighbor. Similar in structure but slightly smaller than Earth, it is the second planet from the sun. Earth is the third. Venus is wrapped in a thick, toxic atmosphere that traps in heat. Surface temperatures reach a scorching 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead.
On Earth, microorganisms in “anaerobic” environments – ecosystems that do not rely on oxygen – produce phosphine. These include sewage plants, swamps, rice fields, marshlands, lake sediments and the excrements and intestinal tracts of many animals. Phosphine also arises non-biologically in certain industrial settings.
To produce phosphine, Earth bacteria take up phosphate from minerals or biological material and add hydrogen.
Venus should be hostile to phosphine. Its surface and atmosphere are rich in oxygen compounds that would rapidly react with and destroy phosphine.
“Something must be creating the phosphine on Venus as fast as it is being destroyed,” said study co-author Anita Richards, an astrophysicist associated with the University of Manchester in England.
While the only things confirmed so far are the traces of life, and no actual aliens, what the ground-breaking discovery now means is not that there is a 100% confirmed case of aliens out there, but at present, this is the only plausible answer scientists have found, so far.